She pulled onto the freeway and gathered speed. The trip would take just over an hour and fifteen minutes. Tara set the cruise control and snuggled into the seat with one leg under her. As her memories coalesced, the road faded away.
She was rearranging the guest bedroom closet. The time had come to move things from her closet to make room for Dean. When the telephone rang, Chloe perked up from her warm spot of sunshine at the foot of the bed. “Good morning!” Tara cheerily spoke into the receiver.
Her smile dissolved. She sank down on the bed. Chloe climbed across her lap to nuzzle her chin in support. Tara spoke in subdued tones and monosyllabic words. Four long minutes crawled past, and the information flowed to her with only minimal verbal acknowledgment. When the conversation came to a close, she simply said, “Thank you. I will.”
The guest room grew foggy. Chloe disappeared. The bed became a table on the alfresco dining patio of a bistro. The late summer sun slanted just under the umbrella, making Tara squint behind her sunglasses. When she turned her head to alleviate the pressure on her eyes, she caught the first glimpse of her.
The woman wore a flowing sarong, beneath which chiseled legs ended in buckled stilettos. Her wide-brimmed hat shaded her face and masked only a small portion of her ebony tresses, which curled around her shoulders and neck. From her slender wrist dangled an exquisitely beaded handbag. The ring on her finger seemed to match everything.
She effortlessly glided across the uneven bricks of the patio to sit across the table from Tara. “Hello, Tara. I am Sharon Cranston.”
Crystal was fingering the screen on her BlackBerry when Reaper appeared on the screen. When she looked up, she realized he looked even more gaunt than usual. Circles had appeared beneath his grey eyes lending more credibility to his nickname. In a fleeting thought, she wondered when his last psychiatric evaluation had been.
“You have twelve minutes.” Mentally, Kalin edited her presentation so it would fit into the time allotted. She had an extra two minutes to elaborate and hypothesize.
“Matthews did not come straight back here. His car made a detour between Crawford and here. First, he went to the casino. He was there for 21 minutes. He made three telephone calls totaling seven minutes, so he did not have much time to interact with anyone there.
“He left there and went to a little town just west of Crawford, called Milton. The coordinates for where he stopped come back to a counting house which is being run by the Bones, but belongs to Feathers’ girlfriend’s grandfather. He has been dead for eight years, but the title has never been probated. It appears to be a dowry of sorts.
“After eight minutes, he was on the road again.” Crystal changed the screen on her laptop away from the aerial view of the property to a map. She placed her finger on one of the roads. “He traveled along the highway until he got right here. He stopped, and his car would not move for nearly two hours. When it did, it made three stops. All of them were places owned by Strickland’s sons. The next time the car rests for more than three minutes is when it crashed.”
Reaper’s expression had not changed since she began. He changed his gaze from his screen back to the camera, essentially looking Crystal directly in the face. “And the other?”
“Cranston was not with him. I tracked his chip from the jail to the counting house. He stayed there for about six hours before he left to start coming back this way. His path was steady until he got to Miller’s house. He left there, but circled back. He stayed around her house until two hours ago, when he made the trip back to Crawford.”
Reaper’s stare made the question obvious. “He is at the counting house for the Bones.” Crystal wished he would say something she could use as an opening to interject her conclusions. Instead, Reaper turned back to his screen.
“Blow this up so I can see where he is.” Crystal’s fingers flew across the keyboard, and the satellite zeroed in on the ramshackle row house nestled behind a stand of trees. The stumps of the cut trees surrounding the perimeter of the house still remained. “Propane,” was the only word Reaper spoke.
He looked back at the camera. Crystal took it as her opportunity. “Bones are competing with the Stricklands. Feathers is playing both ends against the middle. He is the only loose cannon in the mix. And his resources are nearly unlimited, Reaper. Ilyana Mastov is a princess, literally and figuratively. She is backing Feathers’ operations. I uploaded her file to you.
“She is how they are getting information about what we are doing. Current information.” Reaper’s hand went up before the camera as he read. Crystal looked at the time. She only had two minutes left. When Reaper turned back to the camera, she knew he would hear no more.
Reaper spoke softly and deliberately. “I want every transmission made to her. Dates. Times. Duration. I want no names. Only send me the content and the parameters. Nothing else. Do you understand?”
Crystal knew precisely what he was asking her to do. If she followed the instructions to the letter there would be no blow back on her. If she failed, there would be no plausible deniability for either of them. “Yes, sir.”
“When you are finished, I want the jail. Tie it to the sons. Tightly.” Reaper did not wait for a response as he reached to disengage the camera.
The screen flickered before it went black. Squelching the instinct of doubt, she mechanically did as she had been directed. Within the next half hour, the content was sent only to Paulston without any record of the transfer. She carefully wiped away the digital footprints she had left gathering the information.
She buzzed the receptionist to have a gofer bring her some dinner. Tying the Strickland brothers to the jail was not going to be an easy feat from where she sat. It was going to be a long night.
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